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What you need to know about the great Facebook News Feed change

Last week Mark Zuckerberg made a significant announcement. In vowing to “fix Facebook”, Zuckerberg directed his product managers to overhaul the News Feed to refocus the Facebook experience back on family, friends and meaningful interactions, and away from publishers, brands and passive content consumption.

Given Facebook has grown to become a significant platform for the distribution of our editorial content, as well as our partners’ native advertising content, we thought it worth providing you with an overview of the changes and what we think it might mean for our digital business and your campaign strategies.

Why is Facebook changing the News Feed algorithm?

According to Facebook, a key catalyst behind this decision was research claiming that time spent on Facebook experiencing genuine connections and interacting with family and friends had a more positive impact on the mental health of users versus passively consuming content from pages.  

Further, lawmakers are increasingly holding tech giants to the standards they would traditional media companies. Facebook has also been at the centre of concerns about fake news and shady campaigns aimed at swaying election outcomes. They are waking up to the great responsibility that comes with being gate-keepers of the attention of more than two billion people.

The combination of these factors has led to Facebook’s official position that they have grown a conscience, with Zuckerberg even adding in a New York Times briefing that the birth of his daughters impacted this decision: “It’s important to me that they feel like what their father built was good for the world”.  

Interestingly Facebook’s explanation does contradict other research which indicates the “self-comparison” affect, when browsing flattering portrayals of other users’ lives, can lead to lower self-esteem.  It also fails to recognise that, like YouTube, most of the extremist and deplorable graphic content found on the platform is in fact user generated.

More cynical theories, based on insights from former Facebook staff, suggest that this shift may, in fact, be a hedging response to the platform’s faltering engagement statistics. Recent Nielsen figures have shown Facebook usage metrics were actually declining. Insiders say Facebook has research indicating that without a certain proportion of friends and family content, many users no longer see value in the platform.

How are these changes likely to impact publishers?

Facebook has grown to become an important media distribution channel, and in the short term publishers will see a decline in their less engaged Facebook audiences. Over the medium to long-term, however, as audience channels continue to diversify, we expect continued growth in our more engaged audience segments.  

While Facebook enabled publishers and brands to grow rapidly and reach large audiences overnight, these audiences were also typically less engaged than those acquired via other channels. For Bauer Media, acquiring relevant, engaged and loyal audiences has always been our goal and will continue to be.

To that end, our response is to continue diversifying our audience channels and leveraging our portfolio of some of New Zealand’s most-loved brands. These trusted and ubiquitous brands, with deeply engaged audiences across print, digital and events, will provide us a significant advantage over digital-native publishers in a world less-reliant on Facebook.

In regard to our online editorial, we have always adapted the formats of our content to suit the distribution channel. With the latest News Feed changes some of our editorial content may include more exclusives going forward and, in particular, stories that spark constructive conversations; Facebook live and groups will also play an increased role.

Some things to consider for your campaign execution

Facebook has indicated that content that creates “meaningful” social interactions such as longer comments, conversations and shares between users will be prioritised over more passive engagements such as likes, reactions, click-throughs and time spent. Even videos, which are simply passively watched, may also be deprioritized. This is worth consideration.

It is early days and the impending changes are not yet in place. Once they are we will gather insights from our daily publishing operations to assist with continuing to craft best-in-market native content campaigns that reach the right audiences in the most cost-effective ways, and share these insights with you.

Given that Facebook has been clear about its desire to clean up the News Feed, two assumptions we are making are that the rates for boosting content will increase significantly, and the quality and relevance of native content will be paramount in achieving cut-through.  

In regard to the first point, we still view Facebook as a great channel for relevant paid amplification of sponsored content beyond our owned assets, and so will continue to include that in the mix. Should rates increase to the extent that other channels become more cost effective to reach these audiences, we will advise our partners as such.

On the point around the importance of quality, this has been central to our online publishing strategy since day one with our online and magazine editorial teams taking full responsibility for ensuring that commercial content meets the same high standards as our daily editorial content. So no changes there!

Arguably, for brands that have focused on generating earned media via Facebook, these changes will present significant new challenges. We expect to see an increase in collaboration where brands and media owners pool their collective assets and strengths to create more meaningful partnerships.

In summary

While the move sends shock waves through the online publishing world, and Digiday’s art department work overtime creating algorithm-apocalypse images, some publishers remain sanguine about the changes, perhaps even relieved to know where they stand. While others fear people may not bother to seek out the news if not ingrained in their daily Facebook ritual, all agree that strong established media brands that exist across multiple platforms and mediums will be best positioned to gain from the changes.

On a closing note, BuzzFeed responded with a paid Facebook campaign making light of the changes: “Facebook is breaking up with news, but we’ve got you covered!” encouraging users to download the Buzzfeed app.  A nice response and example of what we expect to see more of: great media brands refocusing their strategies and resources towards increasing direct relationships with brand loyal audiences, and less time scrambling to meet the whims of the world’s largest social platform.

Michael Fuyala is the head of digital at Bauer Media.
This piece was originally published on LinkedIn.
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